There’s a pleasing concept at the center of Alex and Emma, Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy currently being marketed as an alternative for those who just might not be much interested in Hulk. Alex (Luke Wilson) is a hypochondriacal writer who hires Emma (Kate Hudson), a stenographer, so that he can dictate his new novel. The interplay between them and the characters in the novel is the catalyst for change and the growing connection between the two of them as the novel progresses. The actors in the real world of Alex and Emma play the characters in the novel as well, placed in the 1920’s.
Going back and forth between characters in widely separated time periods seems to be the modus de operandi du jour (forgive the mixed lingua franca, please) in Hollywood — viz.: Possession, The Hours, The Weight of Water. It’s a complex game to play, but the give-and-take between two parallel stories has the potential of enriching both.
The charm in Alex and Emma comes largely from the likable leads, Wilson pretty much playing the straight man to Hudson’s lively comic sassiness. The writing is clever enough so that the story that Alex is inventing does indeed help put into focus the block to their romance–his fears of intimacy and commitment. The 20’s segments are played for satire, exaggerated and mannered, though there’s no reason to believe that Alex intends his book to be in that style; this contradiction is a minor fault running down the center of the film. But it points up the film’s failure to find a consistent tone.
At the opening, for example, it’s easy to imagine Reiner and Jeremy Levin, his co-writer, brainstorming. Why would Alex be under pressure to get the book done? Why is he using a stenographer instead of using a computer, as most writers do today? Solution: make Alex a compulsive gambler in hock to a couple of hoods who threaten him and destroy his laptop. And to make the gamblers funny, make them muscular, tatooed Latinos with heavy accents. Funny? Not very, and in a tone unrelated to anything that follows. Nor is the compulsive gambler angle followed up with Alex, though his alter ego (Adam) in the 20’s does have a gambling problem.
In the 20’s segments, Hudson gets to morph from one nationality stereotype to another as the maid in the household where Alex/Adam is retained as the tutor. The bits are brief, but Hudson gives them sparkle as she goes from Swedish to German to Spanish to American, in as many different wigs and accents. Cloris Leachman brings some needed life to the proceedings in a funny cameo as the old grandmother whose estate the heroine of the novel (Sophie Marceau) hopes will solve her financial straits.
The heaviest drag on the film is the extensive voiceover utilized as Alex dictates the novel. A more subtly honed script might have segued back and forth between the Alex and Emma scenes and the novel scenes with less of that narration, always a dangerous tool to use on film, demanding attention with droning talk instead of playing it out directly, visually. There are fewer zingers in the funny line department than needed to pump up the draggy pace that the voiceovers produce.
An idea that, with better execution, might have developed into a solid romantic comedy, ends up both ponderous and fluffy at the same time–a notably contradictory achievement. Credit it for not descending into the gross out jokes that seem to dominate contemporary film comedy. It’s a tastefully mediocre movie, a good idea that wandered off the mark.